COLLUSION AND LAMAR JACKSON? NAH, HE’S NOT WORTH AN ALL-TIME DEAL
The lack of activity, after Baltimore placed a nonexclusive franchise tag on its star QB, sparks conjecture that NFL owners are conspiring against inflation — in truth, they’re finally growing wiser
This is not collusion. This is a collision … of reality, a cold blast of business truth. Just because the Baltimore Ravens refuse to acknowledge the idiocy of the Cleveland Browns — who handed a record, fully guaranteed $230 million to Deshaun Watson, a problem child with a slim playoff pedigree — doesn’t mean NFL owners are trying to cap inflation in the great quarterbacking economy.
I would not give Lamar Jackson a massive, locked-in, bigger-than-Watson deal based on three indisputable facts.
He has won only one postseason game in four tries in an era when Patrick Mahomes has won two Super Bowls.
His durability is in question, with injuries forcing him to miss 11 games the last two seasons.
The efficiency ratio that defines the passing game has exposed him, with 20 interceptions against 33 touchdown passes in those two seasons.
I also wouldn’t gift him an all-time pile of guaranteed money based on what’s now known as the Russ Stopped Cooking blunder. The Denver Broncos handed Russell Wilson everything but the front range of the Rocky Mountains, even his own office in the facility, in a $245 million deal with $165 million guaranteed. The decision became more painful when they relinquished four high draft picks and three players to the Seattle Seahawks, who turned to journeyman Geno Smith and watched him trump Wilson with an outstanding season that led to a new, more palatable $105 million deal. One blockbuster trade changed the course of two franchises — Pete Carroll kept his job in Seattle and Nathaniel Hackett lost his after one season in Denver, where Sean Payton has been hired to rescue the Titanic at the ample price of $18 million a year.
The owners, a motley crew normally unworthy of any legal defense, simply are getting wise and rejecting the concept that foolishly monstrous QB deals should beget bigger deals. There still could be an outlier that responds to the Ravens’ choice to tag Jackson with a nonexclusive franchise designation — a polite way of rebuffing his demand to one-up Watson’s jackpot — and makes an offer more to his liking. The offseason is young, with free agency and a draft ahead, and the number of QB-needy teams suggests one could make a bid. But it likely won’t be the record bid Jackson wants, especially when the price of compensation is two first-round draft picks. Or, maybe Baltimore meets the terms of a rival’s offer sheet and carries on.
For now, collusion is the operative word around a league of nervous general managers and suspicious agents. Minutes after Baltimore’s announcement, the Atlanta Falcons said they wouldn’t be pursuing Jackson despite their crater at quarterback. Ditto for the Washington Commanders, looking at someone named Sam Howell as their starter. The Carolina Panthers, currently helmed by bust-verging Sam Darnold, are indicating the same. Tua Tagovailoa is a one-man concussion crisis in Miami, yet the Dolphins also say they don’t want Jackson amid hokey rumors that Tom Brady might unretire and sign. The succession of immediate snubs has given rise to knee-jerk reactions that Jackson is a victim of bias, an ongoing lack of respect for the intellect of Black quarterbacks. If that were true, in a league that does have a racial crisis with only three Black head coaches, three teams wouldn’t have pursued Watson, who is Black, before Browns owner Jimmy Haslam wildly overpaid. And the Broncos wouldn’t have splurged for Wilson, who is Black. No, this isn’t about the color of Jackson’s skin when Mahomes and Jalen Hurts, the first two Black quarterbacks to face each other in a Super Bowl last month, are the prototypes of what teams want.
This is about being careful with upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars. Such is life in a league with a hard salary cap, unlike Major League Baseball, where superstars routinely are rewarded with enormous guarantees. Should football, a dangerous game with brief career spans, have full guarantees? Of course. But the players should take up their dismay with their union leader. If I’m Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, and I have concerns about Jackson, I’m not paying his price when he hasn’t come close to delivering a Super Bowl trophy. I’m letting other teams create his market and decide, if one makes an offer, whether to match it or accept the two first-rounders. Or, negotiate for more assets in return. It’s smart business to wait out the ordeal, even if Jackson’s teammates are in a mutinous mode and an eventual absence of a deal portends an ugly season ahead. The bad guy has become general manager Eric DeCosta, but remember, he is the public spokesman for Bisciotti.
“There have been many instances across the league and in Baltimore when a player has been designated with the franchise tag and signed a long-term deal that same year. We will continue to negotiate in good faith with Lamar, and we are hopeful that we can strike a long-term deal that is fair to both Lamar and the Ravens,” DeCosta said. “Our ultimate goal is to build a championship team with Lamar Jackson leading the way for many years to come.”
Don’t be surprised if the Raiders, who must make a splash after hideous debut seasons in Las Vegas, enter the Jackson sweepstakes at some point if they don’t land a quarterback with the No. 7 pick in next month’s draft. He’s still a top 10 QB, a dual-threat demon when healthy, a unanimous league MVP in 2019 and the first man to produce 5,000 yards passing and 2,500 yards rushing in his first three NFL seasons. You can’t argue with his record — 45-16 — and how the Ravens have gone 3-9 without him. But there’s a sense that the best of Lamar might be behind him though he’s only 26, in a league where Hurts was developed quickly while Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert instantly were meeting expectations. If those emerging superstars are lowballed by their teams — and the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers aren’t known for generosity — then the collusion talk will have credence.
Until then, some teams are simply content with decent-to-good quarterbacks rather than risking wear-and-tear erosion and inconsistency with Jackson. The New York Giants weren’t cheap with Daniel Jones, who slow-played his way to a $160 million deal with $82 million in guarantees, but they certainly aren’t paying him anywhere near Watson. Derek Carr, who still has juice, got $150 million with $70 million in guarantees in New Orleans.
And other teams — Houston (No. 2), Indianapolis (No. 4), Falcons (No. 8) and Panthers (No. 9), if not the Raiders — are content to see what the draft brings in Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Will Levis and Anthony Richardson. As always, in what we call the Peyton Manning/Ryan Leaf Rule, one or two of those prospects will make it big, one or two will crash, and the other will hit and miss. Teams will live with the outcomes, knowing they have those players under much less onerous rookie contracts.
What we have here only feeds America’s unhealthy obsession, even in the dead of March, with quarterbacks. Next up is Aaron Rodgers. In typical diva fashion, he forced New York Jets decision-makers to gas up a private plane for a sitdown in California. He might say yes, knowing the Green Bay Packers are sick of him and making noises that Jordan Love will start this year regardless of his decision. Or, Rodgers might put us out of our misery and retire.
Sometimes, it all seems like an illusion. But one thing it’s not is collusion.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.